Romano Prodi is history. He was able to garner just 156 yeas against 161 nays in the upper house of the Italian parliament on Thursday night in Rome. In this vote of confidence, the Senate showed it had none in the prime minister. The delegates from the left hardly moved when the result of the vote was announced. On the other side of the aisle, though, the champagne corks began loudly popping -- until the president of the Senate intervened: "Put the bottles away! We aren't in a bar here!"
Prodi's cabinet was in office for just 20 months, but it had been clear since Monday that his government's majority had vanished. A key political ally, Justice Minister Clemente Mastella, resigned last week and on Monday abruptly withdrew the support of his party, the Catholic UDEUR party, from Prodi's center-left coalition. The party only had three votes in the Senate, but Prodi's majority was just a single seat.
The 68-year-old prime minister, though, continued to fight -- a political struggle that could very well be his last. One last time, he wanted to show his coalition, the parliament and the entire country of Italy, that he was not one to give in. His nickname is "Diesel," earned for his stubbornness in the face of political crisis. This week, he showed once again that he would rather carry the flag in defeat than turn away from a challenge. Many had spent the week urging him to resign, thereby saving him from the disgrace of losing the vote in the Senate. But Prodi chose to look the political turncoats in the eye and go down with pride.
In that, he was successful. He was calm and collected as he appeared before the Senate in the afternoon, both succinct and concentrated. He wasn't calling this final vote out of stubbornness, Prodi explained, ever the statesman, but merely out of consistency and deep respect for the democratic institutions. Then he listed the things which his cabinet had achieved, from positive economic development, to the recovery of the budget, to the withdrawal of Italian troops from Iraq. Italy could simply not afford to have a power vacuum at the moment, he said, so he wanted to try again: "I call for the vote of confidence, thank you."
No Strategic Center
No thanks, replied the Italian Senate. The departure of his coalition from the political stage was as weak as Prodi was strong. As well as having to cope with the departure of the small UDEUR party, the coalition was clearly fraying at its edges and deeply torn in its core. Three further senators on the right wing of the coalition withdrew their allegiance to the "Professor," as the Italians like to call their head of government. And even those who voted for him preferred to engage in coalition squabbling instead of demonstrating a readiness for a new beginning.
In the Senate debate itself, as in the whole crisis leading up to the Senate vote, one thing was particularly clear: Prodi's coalition entirely lacked a strategic center. Right up until the end, everyone in the coalition -- which included everything from the radical left to Catholic-conservative forces -- did exactly what they wanted. In the Senate on Thursday evening, the radical left settled scores with the moderate forces -- "Do you want to hand Italy over to Berlusconi?" -- who paid them back in kind.
But even the Democratic Party, which at 30 percent is the strongest contingent of the coalition, proved unreliable in Prodi's time of crisis. Prodi was a major influence behind the founding of the Democratic Party -- a fusion between the Democrats of the Left and the Christian Democratic Daisy Party. Prodi wanted to avoid the fate that he met in 1998 -- the first time he found himself prime minister of a center-left government. Lacking his own power center, he was toppled by a vote of no confidence. But the Democratic Party he helped found last fall ended up weakening Prodi rather than strengthening him. Last fall, the party chose Rome's Mayor Walter Veltroni to lead the party over Prodi.
Unable to Close Ranks
The deep gulf of mistrust between Veltroni and Prodi was on full display in the last few days of crisis. In government headquarters, Prodi gathered with those few cabinet members who remained faithful to him -- while in the Democratic Party's headquarters, Veltroni assembled the party leaders without Prodi supporters. The Prodi faction accuses Veltroni of pounding the last nail in the coffin of the Prodi government. He said that, "no matter what happens" the Democratic Party would campaign alone ahead of the next elections, independent from the allies that had made Prodi's government possible.
The vote of no confidence in Prodi will stand as the last act of this broken alliance. Italy's center-left government has abdicated. Even worse, Prodi's coalition showed that, even in a time of crisis, it was unable to close ranks.
The coalition forces will also present themselves as completely splintered during the consultations that the president is now opening. President Giorgio Napolitano has two choices: He can call for the creation of an interim government or he can immediately call for new elections. Napolitano's personal preference would be a government with a strictly limited mandate: the passage of a new election law. Italy's current election law sets the bar extremely low for parties to be able to enter into parliament and it is considered to be the main reason for the fracturing of the Italian parliament.
Berlusconi, for his part, wants new elections. At the same time, an interim government wouldn't harm him either -- after all, it has taken less than two years for the Center-Left Union to fall to ruins. Rumor has it that Berlusconi would like to see Prodi head up this interim government. If the front man of an already ruined coalition stays at the helm for a few more months, then campaigning wouldn't even be necessary, Berlusconi believes. Then victory would fall straight into his lap without his even trying.